I didn’t know it at the time I emailed with her, being a continuing novice to the particularities of Philippine politics, but Congresswoman Abad was a stalwart of the Liberal Party, the majority party in power at the time. She was anti-death-penalty, pro-Reproductive Health Bill, and pushed for the Freedom of Information Act.
She was also married to the Secretary of the Philippine Department of Budget and Management, Florencio “Butch” Abad. When Secretary Butch Abad was embroiled in disputes over the Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF), later ruled unconstitutional, the Abads faced accusations of spousal favoritism for the funds Batanes received for its infrastructure. Congresswoman Abad explained that her district had not been favored by the Secretary, but had been granted the funds by the Department of Public Works and Highways, a governmental body with its own internal decisions. http://news.abs-cbn.com/nation/regions/08/02/11/rep-abad-denies-hubby-gives-her-priority
During President Benigno Aquino III’s administration, Secretary Abad’s controversies and decisions were more often in the minds of Filipinos than Congresswoman Abad’s public service. https://www.rappler.com/thought-leaders/63004-butch-abad-pdaf-dap But in 2013, she hosted and assisted my research in Batanes. In doing so, Congresswoman Abad gave me an accidental glimpse into her political and domestic life. I had never seen the work of a Filipino politician up close before, and while I took note of the character of Batanes, I also watched how Tita Dina moved within her community and her home.
Congresswoman Henedina Razon-Abad died of cancer on October 8, 2017. She was Congresswoman of Batanes from 2004 to 2007, and was re-elected to serve from 2010 until her death in 2017.
Mine is not, and cannot be, a full accounting of a political legacy. I write this, because of all the turmoil and losses of 2017, images and memories of Tita Dina keep returning to me. So these are brief, personal reflections of the time I spent with her.
When I first meet Dina Abad, her attention is not on me, but on Ate Lillian. She lingers in the kitchen near Lillian, the domestic worker who has attended to the family for decades. Ate Lillian has a hand burn she insists does not bother her. But she murmurs that Lillian should stop, should pause, and treat the wound before continuing her work.
She hosts a lunchtime Christmas party in the Batanes National Science High School gym in Basco. She runs late, bringing venes, ovud, pancit, spaghetti, sweet fruit pasta, yellow rice, beef soup, gabi and kamote, along with several green crates of beer. Mid-sip into a San Miguel Light, she seizes a microphone and stands to talk to partygoers about the principles of grassroots participatory budgeting, and plans for a local library in the old Basco post office.
Over dinner, she tells me about the reading group she and her husband had with my mother, when they were students at Ateneo de Manila University in the late 1970s. Their main book was Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paolo Freire, the famous, anti-colonial text that emphasizes dialogue and collaboration in education, rather than brutal hierarchy.
In her kitchen, she lifts the lid of a vast vat of Batanes-style, pork adobo. She grins, showing me the rich and tender meat, steeped and preserved in its own lush fat. “Healthy, organic!” she declares, laughing.
After dinner one night, she turns to her husband. Both say that I do not look like my mother. “You’re too serious,” they agree. “Working on your story. Your mom laughs more.” But she smiles at me. “Your mom gives you your independence, no? I get the sense she lets you do your own thing. Not doting, not exactly. But you have your freedom.”
Standing in her Basco home, I’m trying to thank her for something; her hospitality, perhaps. But she does not hear me; she looks at my feet and behind me. She seizes my shoulders and moves me aside. I was standing, without noticing, above the stairs; an absent-minded step backward, and I would have fallen.
She and her husband show me the chapel on their home grounds. The ceiling has been painted with saints, but the saints’ visages are modeled after the groundskeepers, maids, and domestic workers who populate their household and their business.
In the Batanes town of Ivana, Alex Ibay, a middle-aged, tattooed fisherman, dangles, with his bare hand, the heavy, prized Bluefin tuna he caught, glistening azure and silver. “Christmas gift. For the congresswoman,” he says, and smiles. She hugs him.
At the dinner table, she’s telling me about the vagaries of local politics, and she sees her husband fix his gaze at his meal. She laughs, observing him, and strikes his shoulder with a warm palm. “He doesn't want!” she cries, seeing his refusal to engage the topic, and turns the conversation to something else.
At her office in Basco, she introduces me to a new congresswoman, Leni Robredo, visiting Batanes for the first time. Robredo uses her phone to photograph a bulletin board, wanting to bring a version of it back to her own region. This is the congresswoman’s Transparency Board, showing, with rectangular paper cut-outs on a map, exactly how many pesos of the budget were allocated to which local Batanes development projects.
Her husband spends his holiday at their house, arranging flowers in vases, observing the growth of new blooms in the garden. “He’s the house husband!” she declares, laughing and striking his shoulder with her open palm again.
I tell her the frustrations of a local architect, a preservationist of Batanes homes. She nods and sighs, listening. “Tell her to come talk to me,” she says. “Give her my number. We’ll see what we can do.”
In 2016, I am not surprised when she is one of the few members of congress who refuses to support the re-imposition of the death penalty. She risks, and then suffers, the retaliation of the ruling party. https://www.rappler.com/nation/184651-batanes-representative-dina-abad-death
In 2017, I am surprised when she dies only months after the cancer diagnosis. She is someone in whose energetic orbit I would have wanted to stay. Even now, months later, thinking of her laughter, and the way she moved through Batanes, I am still surprised she is gone.
The last time I see her is in 2014, at her son Pio’s art show opening at the University of the Philippines, Diliman.
The last thing she says to me, in person, in this life, makes me laugh. “You’ve gained weight, I must say!” she declares, and pats my belly. “More walking for you. But! Your mother will be happy. You look much healthier.” Today, writing this, remembering, I laugh again.
Laurel Fantauzzo's The First Impulse (Anvil), was named a best book of 2017 by the Philadelphia Inquirer and CNN Philippines. She currently teaches at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.